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Managing Expectations

When I’m out, I often see a parent and a child in a struggle caused by the parent having an unrealistic expectation. This makes me so sad for both of them.

The struggles I’m talking about are ones where if the expectations, the environment, or the circumstances were changed, the difficulty would completely disappear. It’s not realistic, for example, for a parent to expect a baby to be comfortable for very long in a car seat, and a lot of babies will cry and fuss when they’re put in them. It makes me incredibly sad to witness those tears and fights that would never even show up in a different family, simply because the parent’s expectations are in alignment with what’s realistic for a child that age, of that temperament, or in that situation.

One thing that’s guided my parenting and has been so helpful to me has been to look at my children from an evolutionary perspective. What has been normal for most of human history has completely changed in the last centuries (or even the last decade!), and now leads us to having completely unrealistic expectations of our children. Here are some examples:

For most of human history, babies have been carried until they could walk, and slept with their moms for safety. Expecting them to be happy and thrive if they sit in a cold, hard seat during the day and sleep away from human contact is not realistic.

For most of human history, babies have nursed on demand, and for several years. Expecting them to feed on a schedule or easily wean before they’re ready is not realistic.

For most of human history, children have lived in tribes, and been around a lot of people of all ages. Expecting children to be happy and thrive at home alone with Mom is not realistic.

For most of human history, children have learned from observing what others were doing and then doing it themselves. Expecting children to happily and cooperatively sit in classrooms and be interested in what’s decided that they should learn is not realistic.

For most of human history, children only had a handful of objects to play with. Expecting them to be able to manage and clean up hundreds of toys, including many of them with loads of little pieces, like Lego blocks and Barbie dolls, is unrealistic.

For most of human history, food was real food. Expecting children to be able to regulate their diet when presented with addictive substances such as sugar and processed foods— which are marketed by experts trained in convincing your children that eating it will be the best experience of their life— is unrealistic.

For most of human history, there were no such things as addictive screens. Expecting children to be able to healthily regulate their use of screens is not realistic.

And here are more situations where I often see parents struggle because they don’t have a realistic expectation for their child:

Toddlers are just babies on wheels. Their development is all about learning about their world through touch, and developing their gross motor functions. Expecting a 1-yearold to not stand on chairs, for example, or to not touch objects in his environment is not realistic.

Children have a huge need to be active. Not taking this into account, including their specific temperament (some children need to be more active than others), can lead to many unrealistic expectations.

Children have a huge need for social interaction. Not taking this into account, including their specific temperament (again, some children need more social interaction than others), can lead to many unrealistic expectations of children being well-behaved at home for extended periods of time.

Children need the freedom and respect to make their own decisions, unless they impact the rest of the family. Expecting them to let you make decisions for them or be open to your input if you don’t primarily give them control over their own lives can lead to loads of problems and conflicts.

Children need to be taught how to appropriately handle their emotions. Expecting them to behave appropriately amid strong emotions, before they’ve been taught how to handle them, is unrealistic.

Children have their own agendas, and are their own people. Another expectation that often causes trouble is that parents (and other people) often think their children should have the same agendas as they do. We all have different priorities, interests, and desires—children included.

Developing realistic expectations of our children can go a long way in preventing struggles in our families. And as with our children, much of the pain and stress we experience as parents comes from the fact that we don’t have realistic expectations of ourselves. Because we’re caught up in what we think we should be doing, or how we think we should be, we don’t proactively address the real problem.

Where in your parenting do you have unrealistic expectations of yourself? If you have a hard time seeing it, imagine the situations with which you struggle happening to a dear friend of yours, who’s a great parent. From that lens, can you spot some unrealistic expectations that you have for yourself?